In a recent, unpublished opinion, a California Court of Appeal found in favor of an employer on a marital status discrimination claim than an employee brought under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The court held that FEHA did not protect an employee against marital status discrimination based on his marriage to a relative of the employer’s CEO when it was rumored that the employee posed a threat of violence to his colleagues. Nakai v. Friendship House Association of American Indians, Inc., No. A147966 (August 10, 2017).

Factual Background

Orlando Nakai was employed by Friendship House Association, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. While he was employed by Friendship House, Nakai married the daughter of the company’s CEO. Nakai and his wife eventually began having marital difficulties. In May of 2016, Nakai’s wife informed her mother—the CEO—that Nakai “had a gun, was angry with the employees of Friendship House, was dangerous, and had relapsed on drugs.” Nakai’s wife also provided the CEO with a copy of the temporary restraining order she had obtained against her husband. The CEO discharged Nakai, who sued for marital status discrimination and failure to conduct a reasonable investigation in violation of FEHA.

The Court’s Analysis

Nakai alleged that Friendship House Association violated FEHA, which prohibits discrimination against individuals on the basis of marital status, because he was discharged “solely because of his status as the spouse of the complaining employee.” The California Court of Appeal found that Nakai was unable to allege a prima facie case of marital status discrimination. According to the court, marital status discrimination laws are intended “to prevent discrimination against classes of people,” not to protect individuals on the basis of their “status of being married to a particular person.” Since Nakai alleged that he was treated differently based on his marriage to the CEO’s daughter, not on the basis of being married itself, the court found that there was “not a marital discrimination problem.”

The court also found that Friendship House had several legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for discharging him: his wife reported that he owned a gun, was purportedly angry at their employees, and was using drugs. The court found that because Friendship House had concerns of violence, it had legitimate reasons for discharging Nakai.

Nakai did not offer any evidence that these proffered reasons for his discharge were pretext for discrimination. Thus, the court granted summary judgment in Friendship House’s favor on his marital status discrimination claim under FEHA.

The court also rejected Nakai’s failure to investigate claim, finding that Friendship House had no obligation to investigate the allegations before discharging Nakai because he was an at-will employee.

Key Takeaways

While this case did not involve coworkers, it highlights issues that might emerge when spouses work for the same company, which is not uncommon. This case also provides helpful clarity on the meaning of marital status discrimination under FEHA. The court provided examples of marital discrimination: it could “include refusing ‘to hire unwed mothers because they were unwed, a refusal to hire single people because they were single, or the granting of maternity leave to married teachers only.’” In this case, the plaintiff was fired because the CEO sided with her daughter in a marital dispute and custody battle, not because he was a married man.

However, it should be noted that where the employee and spouse are coworkers and the employee is fired because his or her spouse engaged in protected activity, such as whistleblowing to the government, a wrongful termination claim may arise under certain circumstances.